If you were to see the floor of my home office right now, you’d learn a lot about me.

I start this inventory every year after Christmas. I aim to file all loose papers, throw out expired coupons, finish and send letters that I left half-written, organize souvenirs and conference packets and travel papers that I tossed aside and forgot about. I always begin with zeal, driven by a desire to start the New Year with a clean slate. But I never finish the job. Why? The answer is discouraging. I lose my enthusiasm for the future as I stare into the disorder of the past. And the mess of my life stares back at me, saying “What are you going to do about it?”

Things means things. That’s what my high school poetry teacher used to say as I blinked at seemingly unrelated elements of a poem. Now I know what he means. The details of our lives, however arbitrary, will talk with one another if they are set side by side. And they will reveal patterns, obsessions, fears, and priorities.

Case in point: my favorite movie of 2016: Cameraperson, a documentary by Kirsten Johnson.

A lot of you will probably stop reading right there: A documentary? You don’t go to the movies for a report, right? You want to be caught up in a visionary work of imagination.

Well, “documentary” isn’t the best word for Cameraperson. It’s more like a mystery or a puzzle. Johnson, a cinematographer who has worked on some of the most provocative documentaries of the last 25 years, has cleaned up the cutting room floor and selected excerpts for an exhibition: fragments from between the scenes that “mattered,” throwaway segments of interviews, and excerpts from her own home movies.

She takes these “deleted scenes” ...

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